A politics based on the rule of law and the rights of individuals at home has rarely translated into the same politics abroad. For a long time, liberal states were advocates not of global democracy promotion and “international human rights” so much as of a kinder, gentler empire. Back in the day, French reformers waxed poetic about how “colonial humanism” would realize the civilizing mission their empire had long promised the natives. At the turn of the twentieth century, Lord Cromer, the consul-general of Britain in Egypt, defended the British Empire by denouncing empires from Rome forward. In them, he explained, “the subject was regarded as existing for the empire rather than the empire for the subject.” For Lord Cromer, Britain’s global ascendancy fell into a different category, because it promoted “the moral and material elevation” of “the subject races which were brought under her sway.” Compared with prior and rival empires, Britain provided the right sort of domination—and only “an extreme radical visionary” would make the mistake of supposing that the world would be better off without it.

Such soft sells of hard power are reminders that, free trade aside, a domestic commitment to liberal values had very little impact on the chilling and sometimes violent quest for wealth, security and order that modern European states conducted beyond their borders. But how different is the United States, with its proud traditions of constitutional government and fundamental rights? For a moment in the 1990s, it looked as if the American school of thought known as “liberal internationalism” was close to realizing its fondest dreams. The global order it envisioned—and which it claimed had already materialized to a striking degree—would provide the benefits not only of nineteenth-century free markets but also of twentieth-century human rights. As a leading liberal internationalist, G. John Ikenberry, writes in Liberal Leviathan, for more than four decades the United States had cultivated this postimperial world, crafting—and, when necessary, submitting to—its multilateral rules and acting as the linchpin of its mostly consensual security arrangements.

But even liberal internationalists, like Cromer earlier, cannot imagine a world beyond domination. Ikenberry contends that when the United States had the torch passed to it by Britain as the new liberal standard-bearer during World War II, it decisively moved liberal internationalism away from imperialism toward a new and benevolent kind of hegemonic leadership. Power now served morality, with the international community standing ready to right wrongs whenever the spontaneous workings of the global system were threatened. Claiming they were the most recent inheritors of this old vision, and seeing themselves in the vanguard of history, liberal internationalists explained after the fall of the Soviet Union how long-dormant plans were finally coming to fruition in a world order that, under America’s watch, was enjoying unparalleled freedom and prosperity.

The dawn of a long day turned out to be the dusk of a short one. After 9/11, George W. Bush quickly and unceremoniously upended a state of affairs that, according to Ikenberry’s scholarship, Americans had spent decades reinforcing. Bush trashed multilateralism in foreign affairs, insisting that America had to “go it alone” when terrorism threatened; as a result, he treated global institutions that the United States had had a hand in creating as irritating obstacles to sovereignty—if not simply irrelevant. Counting himself among liberals offended by Bush, Ikenberry writes that the president “presented an extraordinary puzzle.” Adding insult to injury, the Great Recession that followed the political disarray of the Bush years has shaken the material foundations of American leadership and, in turn, the liberal order American internationalists have envisioned.

Ikenberry’s attempt to reclaim liberal internationalism for the future is nothing if not courageous, because the chances of success seem slight. What seems incredible about this hulking leviathan now is not its beneficence abroad as much as its sclerosis at home. Even so, Ikenberry boldly concludes that the sorrows of liberal internationalism are temporary, and that sunny optimism about the long run is justified. Unfortunately, aside from offering a psychological tonic, Liberal Leviathan doesn’t give grounds enough for a confident bet on this faltering colossus—except perhaps the other way.

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A professor at Princeton University, Ikenberry is perhaps the most acute member of the club of liberal internationalists gathered there. Like Woodrow Wilson, their honorary predecessor from the sleepy New Jersey town, liberal internationalists provide theoretical rationales for the American policy shop that they sometimes directly serve. Ikenberry has worked for the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, founded in 1947, and his close colleague Anne-Marie Slaughter recently directed it for a spell.

Several years ago, with the acrid smell of war in the air, charges of American imperialism were ubiquitous. For Ikenberry, it remains terribly important to defend America from accusations of empire. He starts out with abstract theory. Once a state is in the ascendant, it can impose its will on others by force or by consent. But whereas an imperial state is the powerful hub of a spoked wheel, a hegemon like the United States will construct a rule-based order and entice others to voluntarily join a multilateral web. Unlike an empire, which acts unilaterally and unpredictably, a hegemon creates legitimacy by propounding rules for states to which it also submits.

The trouble with these arguments is that Ikenberry doesn’t establish a bright line between empire and hegemon. He is aware that, since the publication in 1953 of a classic article about British imperialism by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, historians of the nineteenth century have argued that the British state came to work through “informal empire,” with the construction of a free-trade order as its aim and the use of military force and even direct administrative presence being the last resort rather than the first choice to enforce that order. Other historians have since emphasized that, especially in the later nineteenth century, the British Empire also made a decisive move to “indirect” rule through local elites—an arrangement, Ikenberry acknowledges, that hegemony also relies on, such as when under decolonization sovereignty passed to new states. Empire in its informal and indirect character could verge on hegemony.

Correspondingly, hegemony is on a continuum with empire. “Weaker and secondary states are formally sovereign and the extent and mechanisms of domination will tend to be looser and less formal,” Ikenberry says of hegemonic arrangements. But sometimes empire is already domination in kinder and gentler form. Nothing of much consequence hangs on isolating the point at which empire ends and hegemony begins, because looser and less formal domination cuts across the divide between them. The attempt to justify that dominance in the highest moral terms does too, as Lord Cromer’s words about the British Empire attest. As a result, if there is no point to unmasking the hegemonic United States as an empire, there is also no obvious reason to argue, as Ikenberry does, that its mode of hegemony is “profoundly distinctive” from empire.

It seems obvious that a hegemon can never break cleanly from the imperial hub-and-spokes model in the name of multilateralism and what Ikenberry calls “leading through rules.” To the extent it wants to exercise greater power, it will never allow negotiations to happen among equals, even in the international institutions it may have helped to establish, without exerting back-channel pressure to guide negotiations to the desired result. And it always maintains the right to walk away from the negotiating table and scramble the fighter jets when “negotiation” leads to an unacceptable outcome. Ikenberry insists that only empire relies on force, “at least in the last instance.” But the same is true of hegemony. Empire bleeds into hegemony because hegemony sometimes bleeds.

Continuing his theorizing, Ikenberry intensively examines liberal versions of hegemony, which he says boil down to domination based on multilateralism and negotiated consent rooted in universal values, rather than imposed arrangements and self-dealing backed up by violence. But because the divide between empire based on power and hegemony based on consent is muddy, liberalizing forms of empire have existed, to which hegemony could simply add more liberalism. At best, Ikenberry can argue only that hegemony can become relatively, not absolutely, liberal. He concedes as much when he writes charmingly throughout the book that American hegemony has had “liberal characteristics.” This is like saying that a poor man has “wealthy characteristics” because he is wearing a clean shirt, and very different from saying he is rich.

Most troubling, Ikenberry treats liberalism and hegemony as consistent, even though they are in deep tension. But if an international order becomes more liberal, it must become less hegemonic. Ikenberry’s ideal of liberal hegemony suggests that to the extent the leading nation in the system bases its rule on high principle rather than open selfishness, it will gain more legitimacy as subordinate states believe the hype. Yet it also follows that a liberal hegemony will have to take seriously its commitment to the real, rather than merely formal, sovereignty of the state players.

The fraught tensions in the model of liberal hegemony, not its world-historical breakthrough, may be what’s most distinctive about it. As much as he guards against conservatives to his right, Ikenberry avoids the extreme, radical or visionary hope to his left of a world beyond domination. He does not say that the egalitarian moral principles of justice championed by liberalism make the hierarchy of wealth and power upon which the system is based seem the height of unfairness. Only in a footnote does he make an observation that threatens to undermine the entire book: “Hegemony may be put at the service of creating an open and rule-based order,” he remarks, “but hegemony is itself not democratic.” It is not liberal either.

Ikenberry is not wrong to argue that hegemony can become more liberal. Yet he never shows how a hegemonic order could become generally, mostly or completely liberal. Ikenberry is not really entitled to say, even on theoretical grounds, that any hegemony could ever qualify as fully consistent with liberal values. Certainly America’s hegemony after World War II never did.

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It is not just the abstract possibility of liberal hegemony that matters to Ikenberry. He tries to prove that American hegemony in practice fits the theoretical model. However, the history he tells inadvertently suggests that liberal internationalism must be a lot younger than he claims.

Ikenberry’s history of American liberal internationalism begins with Woodrow Wilson. After Iraq, Ikenberry, Slaughter and others gathered in Princeton to refute worrisome charges that Bush was not the betrayal of “Wilsonianism” but its culmination. The debate was later published as a book called The Crisis of American Foreign Policy. But everybody in the room agreed that Wilsonianism represented a single, continuous tradition. It is true that Wilson had an internationalist vision and was a liberal. However, the version of internationalism he backed is rather different from the one endorsed by today’s liberal school. His famous Fourteen Points, devised to guide the construction of global order after World War I, emphasized peaceful coexistence under free trade. They offered national self-determination to some peoples living under the empires on the losing side but said nothing about democratic government or human rights.

After 1945, in Ikenberry’s telling, Americans led by forming a liberal system in which their power worked in part through the promotion of liberal values like human rights. Ikenberry frequently refers to a “human rights revolution” that was “deeply rooted in a progressive liberal vision that emerged in the 1940s.” But FDR’s influence on international human rights in the ’40s was not rooted in a terribly progressive vision and did not foster a revolution [see “Human Rights in History,” August 30/September 6, 2010]. Throughout the war FDR dreamed of dividing the globe into zones of influence policed by superpowers, and he consented to a world organization on the condition that superpowers could achieve balance through it, an arrangement that eventually came to pass with the creation of the UN Security Council. His successor, Harry Truman, moved America into a cold war that wasn’t much about leading through rules or promoting human rights.

This was hegemony, yet it was not very liberal. Strangely, though half his book is supposed to illustrate his theory of liberal hegemony since 1945, Ikenberry doesn’t talk much about the cold war, the largest component of the era by far. He acknowledges that liberal internationalism of the form he favors was “less obvious” throughout the period, given the pre-eminence of cold war imperatives, yet he excludes the cold war from his book as an apparently unrelated sideshow. Ikenberry does acknowledge that his thesis about the post–World War II American construction of a liberal international order works solely for Western Europe (and Japan), but he omits a lot even there. In places like Greece and Portugal, American hegemony worked through tools like proxy warfare and friendly dictators—and didn’t seem very liberal at the time. And then there are the parts of the globe that liberalism didn’t reach. “Triumphs and setbacks followed,” he summarizes. Well, I suppose “setback” is one way to characterize events, like the Vietnam War, otherwise omitted from your story.

It was only after Vietnam—beginning in a moment of guilt and self-reflection and continuing in a post–cold war mood of optimism and power—that liberal internationalism assumed its current form, stressing rules and rights. Intellectually, liberal internationalism is really a product of the 1970s and ’80s, an era in which what it meant to be a liberal in foreign affairs pivoted in the aftermath of catastrophe. Revealingly, surveys of usage show that the phrase “liberal internationalism” circulated widely only after 1980. (In case you are curious, “hegemony” is much older, as its ancient Greek roots suggest. In the twentieth century, the term was mainly associated with Antonio Gramsci’s anatomy of bourgeois rule through consent; it was also used by certain Nazi theoreticians envisioning the global order they were planning. Only much later did liberal political scientists begin to use it as a term of praise for American dominance.)

The liberal internationalist’s history runs roughshod over the American past and disguises the intellectual history of how his position came about. When it came into its own in the 1990s, liberal internationalism suppressed its complicated history, and Ikenberry’s rather romanticized version is a good example. Backdating its origins provides it with the distinction of a tradition, but it also conceals a lot of evidence about alternative projects undertaken along the way. Just as liberalism had once typically meant support for imperialism in the nineteenth century, its American forms after World War II favored fierce and direct cold war engagement alongside containment, as the history of the Vietnam era shows most graphically.

How, then, can the liberal internationalist bring a sunny perspective to a messy record? The liberal internationalist might acknowledge that “mistakes were made,” and that (just as for the British before) American liberalism moved in the direction of rules and rights only after other methods proved counterproductive—and ultimately once the Soviet threat was put down by any means necessary. But Ikenberry doesn’t. He prefers to bury the mixed bag of the past, or to cloak its less uplifting contents in euphemisms. Such a history of American ascendancy seems primarily directed to Americans without much of a memory. Its chief function is public relations, the promotion of optimism about the present and future. But just because fairy tales soothe anxieties does not mean they are true.

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Though he clearly began this book in order to save America from charges of empire and to show the Bush era to be an accidental and temporary divergence from America’s beneficent mission, Ikenberry just as clearly completed it as the financial crash revealed a different set of problems. If Bush forced liberal internationalists like Ikenberry to insist that the uses of America’s dominance are different from its abuses, the crash stirred fears that its dominance is not long for this world.

The subtlest chapter of Ikenberry’s book shows the alternative paths faced by a hegemon when it becomes uniquely powerful in a unipolar world, as was the case for the United States after 1989. It is a rich and rigorous survey of different possible outcomes. Ikenberry judiciously explains how unopposed power could entice the United States into an imperial trajectory, even as “crosscutting incentives” to make its rule consensual and even charitable tug at its liberal heartstrings.

But one of the most repeated and interesting reasons Ikenberry offers for the United States to stay true to a liberal course is that liberal internationalism offers the best possible future for a unipolar power confronting its inevitable decline. The point of setting up an international system based on rules and rights, Ikenberry frequently if quietly notes, is never just to win consent now. It is to entrench or lock in arrangements that favor a hegemony that cannot last. “If the rules and institutions are deeply embedded in wider systems of politics and economics, the order itself is made more durable and can last even into the future when the power of the hegemonic state declines,” he observes.

Such passages are indicative of the current state of liberal internationalism, which has moved on from its post-1989 position that liberalism and hegemony coincide or even depend on each other. Its new agenda is to figure out how to encode its values on the world order before the arrival of what Fareed Zakaria has called the post-American era. These days, the high-minded statements of the spokesmen of liberal internationalism may reflect fear more than hope. It is easy to see, after all, that when its ability to set the agenda of the world order is on the wane, a great power will fret about its values more than ever.

Ikenberry concludes by suggesting how important it is that liberal values prosper in a world when American ascendancy is qualified or undone—and they can prosper only if Barack Obama and his heirs make good on their passing chance to augment the liberalism of the world order. Yet it seems implausible that a new era of multipolarity or outright Chinese hegemony will especially favor the values Americans learned to champion only yesterday.

In a late section of his book, Ikenberry speculates that China’s rise, if current trends continue, need not overturn the liberal order America has often promoted abroad as a general policy, especially under recent Democratic presidents. That order is so good, Ikenberry suggests, that China could and probably should try to join it rather than beat it. Here Ikenberry’s moralism may interfere with his realism. That for the first twenty years of its existence China’s communist government was excluded from the United Nations, which Ikenberry portrays as a manifestation of America’s liberal internationalism, may lead China to wonder if other plans are in order.

What Ikenberry calls admiringly the “liberal Leviathan” of America’s beneficent power could soon be a beached whale on the shore of an unknown future. Neither Ikenberry nor anyone else can predict what will happen. In the meantime, only one thing seems plain. Whoever seizes hegemony in an era of American decline will inevitably follow America’s recent liberal internationalists in offering versions of history suggesting the moral propriety of their inheritance of the globe. And they will have their own policy intellectuals struggling to prove that their dominance really is the best thing for a world that suspects otherwise.